As I have spoken of several times in the past, I find culture to be the absolute most important aspect of designing a believable campaign setting or world. It is what helps us recognize the differences between separate locations, the same way skin color, height, and language help us recognize the difference between separate individuals. After reading some recent posts from one of my new favorite blogs, I have been inspired to talk about culture some more, and discuss some ways to implement small, culturally significant ideas into campaigns.
In 1976, ethologist and author Richard Dawkins introduced to the world the idea of the meme, the individual building blocks of a culture. He explains that memes are culture what DNA is to an individual – they are the single unitary facets that, alone, represent almost nothing, but combined with all the others, create a living, breathing, working culture that is easily recognizable and distinguishable from others.
I’m going to break down these memes into a few different categories, and talk about how you can use them in your campaign to create a sense of “self” for different locations, societies, and cultures.
Items and Clothing
When you see someone wearing a specific piece of clothing that is against the norm of a particular society, such as a Chinese hat, you immediately understand that it has a cultural significance different from your own. Likewise, the khopesh, though given a bit of a druidic stereotype in old Dungeons and Dragons games, would create a sense of Egyptian flair. Specific items, in terms of carry-ons, weapons, clothing, or decoration, all hint towards a distinct identity, which is what we’re aiming for here.
People in specific villages, kingdoms, or even entire continents, may all have similar items they carry, or clothing they wear, which distinguishes them from those of another location. Since we’re working with memes (small units), here is a short list of some real world examples of clothes, items, or weapons that I have found after just a few minutes of browsing the internet:
- In many southern Asian countries, a sarong is worn as a lower garment. Though there are different regional variations, they all consist of a strap of long cloth that is tied or fastened around the waist.
- On many of the Pacific and Micronesian isles, the aboriginal people made weapons from the sharpest items they could find – the teeth of sharks!
- In the Southeast USA, particularly Georgia, and the Charleston, SC region, folks harvest sweet grass to make baskets, jewelry, and decorations from. These baskets are used for groceries and shopping and storing items at home, and the jewelry is worn year-round.
- The indigenous peoples of the Pacific northwest crafted and carved talismanic poles from the trunks of cedar trees that would stand as a center point for the celebration of specific cultural beliefs, the recounting of familiar legends, or even as mortuary structures.
- The Ojibwa people used clusters of white sage, bound into smudge sticks, in many ceremonies. Possibly more importantly, though, the burning of the sticks created a long-lasting smoke which would ward off insects!
Obviously there are thousands, or millions, of other memetic items that show up in different cultures that help create that sense of identity within the culture. Wikipedia is an amazing resource, but just start googling for customs, charms, cultural icons, etcetera, and see what you come up with. Maybe there are some eating utensils being used in a north African country that would fit well into your campaign? Or maybe some ancient kingdom had a unique weapon that would really work with your new empire?
And there are just as many good ideas that can be created with just a little bit of thought. Maybe all the women in a particular nation wear a colored headband with small, embedded gems along the top. Perhaps in a certain city-state, all adults wear an oddly-curved dagger at their belts. Possibly, everyone in some kingdom carries around a small silver coin, which they do not spend under any circumstances. What is it for? Was it minted on the day after the kingdom finally won independence from a foreign usurper? Is it a charm given to every child from his or her parents, to ward off evil spirits? Something else entirely?
Just as importantly, what do these things represent to the players and characters in the campaign? Do your players respect the cultural identify of sovereign nations, or is every city in a kingdom just “the place where we stop in between hunting goblins?” Perhaps introducing some of these items to the characters can help them come to grasp with the idea that they are living in an actual world, and not just some static vessel which heals and feeds them between sessions. If the players come across one of the coins from above, will they understand how significant it is, or will it just be another piece of loot to fill their bags?
How do you use memetic items to give cultures a sense of self?